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Anthony Hsieh, of Bad Company fame, has created the largest nonprofit fishing tournament in the world: War Heroes on Water. What began five years ago as a way to unite the Southern California fishing community in honoring those who fought for our country has grown to include 125 veteran participants hosted on a fleet of 50 sport-fishing yachts. Hsieh chose Freedom Alliance as the partner for this visionary undertaking to recruit and select the warriors who attend.
While many charitable events focus solely on those who suffered physical wounds from war—such as those who lost limbs to explosions—Freedom Alliance established a scope for eligibility based on the premise that combat affects all who engage in it. Thus, to be eligible for participation in the WHOW tournament, veterans and active-duty warriors must have actively engaged in combat with the enemy. With this criteria, Freedom Alliance has selected dozens of highly decorated veterans with multiple deployments, those who fought in significant battles, those in the special operations communities, as well as those who suffered physical wounds such as gunshots, amputations, and brain injuries from blast impacts. The roster of anglers is comprised of warriors with Bronze Star and Commendation medals with “V” devices for valor in combat and numerous Purple Heart medals—presented to those who suffered wounding by the enemy—from men and women serving in combat roles from the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to such historic battles as Operation Vigilant Resolve and Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004 to the operations in Sangin and Marjah in 2010 in Afghanistan.
“We’re fortunate to have so many generous donors, sponsors, captains, and crews who understand the challenges facing our nation’s heroes and want to help,” Hsieh says. “Their support each year allows us expand our reach to more veterans and families. Our nation’s veterans have sacrificed so much for us and for our country, and I look forward to the opportunity to serve them through WHOW every year. We’re here to show these heroes how much they mean to us while allowing them to tap into the healing powers of the ocean and forge lifelong bonds with fellow veterans who understand and share their experiences.”
The event entails much more than fishing and began this year with an intimate welcome party at Hsieh’s home in Newport Beach, California. The next day, with bags packed and ready, the veterans attended a dockside kick-off party in Newport, attended by a couple hundred supporters who cheered them on as they boarded the yachts participating in this year’s event. The boats then gathered in Newport Harbor for the national anthem, which was sung by Freedom Alliance scholarship recipient Haley Nicole Taylor as her father, Wayne Taylor, a Desert Storm veteran, watched from one of the boats.
“The enduring connections we’ve seen come out of WHOW are truly irreplaceable because the collaborative nature of this on-water event is supportive of healing and growth for all involved—it saves lives,” says Tom Kilgannon, president of Freedom Alliance. “Beyond directly serving veterans on the water, the money raised by WHOW allows us to support thousands more heroes and their families through therapeutic services and programs such as the Freedom Alliances scholarship fund.”
Before heading to the weigh-in station at Avalon’s historic Green Pier, the boats gathered just outside Avalon Bay on Catalina Island for a flyover of World War II vintage planes in salute to the troops. On the pier, yachts with notable catches were invited to the tournament’s weigh-in festivities while enjoying the camaraderie with their comrades-in-arms and fellow fishermen.
Read Next: Learn more about Freedom Alliance and its work with America’s veterans.
The tournament ended with a heartfelt awards ceremony at the Lyon Air Museum, where the winners in a variety of categories were announced. US Army veteran Brent Woodward collected the most trophies of the night with five in total, landing the highest cumulative weight at 245.2 pounds, the biggest yellowfin tuna and bluefin tuna; his team placed third in the Top Boat category.
Woodward also took home one of the most coveted prizes of the night, the Ron Ashimine Award for the event’s top angler, which is especially poignant because it is named for a Vietnam veteran and close friend of Hsieh’s. Together, they spent more than 800 days at sea fishing around the world. Ashimine participated in the first WHOW tournament, held in 2018, but died the following year.
Thomas Pacheco, a first-time WHOW participant and retired Army telecommunication systems chief, who also took home honors finishing in second place as top angler and third in weight points categories, shared the impact this year’s tournament had on his life: “Back in the military, I really felt like I was somebody important, but when I retired, I felt like I was nobody. This tournament brought me back up to where I was somebody again, so thank you very much.”